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99 ‘dosas’ and still not done

  • The 99 Varieties ‘dosa’ trucks tell a story of how migration has transformed food in Bengaluru over the past three decades
  • 99 Varieties is not only popular among migrants to the city but among locals too

Filling being added to a ‘dosa’. Photo courtesy: Vishal Dey
Filling being added to a ‘dosa’. Photo courtesy: Vishal Dey

Prakash and Padma Prakash first learnt how to make pav bhaji dosa in Kalyan, a city just outside Mumbai, where they’d lived for 15 years running a fast-food business. Originally from Karnataka’s Hassan district, they’d first arrived in Mumbai at the invitation of Padma’s cousin, who taught them the trade—particularly the recipe for pav bhaji dosa, a regular dosa with a spicy pav bhaji filling, which was the star of their food business. In 2007, the couple moved back to the south—to Bengaluru—and set up a food cart selling ‘99 Varieties Dosa’. Among the staples was the pav bhaji dosa.

Today, this non-Kannadiga, non-south Indian variant of a south Indian staple has become so popular that dozens of food trucks and carts selling “99 Varieties Dosa" have cropped up all over Bengaluru. Every evening, from 4.30 until around midnight, scores of people gather around these restaurants on wheels, browsing the menu and ordering their favourite combination.

People in Bengaluru have taken to the “99 Varieties" concept in a big way, an interesting example of how migration has transformed the city over the past three decades, with the accompanying confluence of cultures, at least when it comes to food. Over the past decade, several local south Indian eateries like Vasudev Adiga’s have expanded their menus to include north and west Indian dishes such as paneer tikka, dal makhani and aloo paratha.

Contrary to popular belief, “99 Varieties" is not a brand. Padma, 45, says her husband coined the term when they moved to Bengaluru in 2007 to set up their dosa business, Sri Balaji 99 Variety Dosa, near Lakshmi Devi Park in Koramangala. “We didn’t register the name back then. The concept became popular and others started using the name for their own dosa carts. Now they are all over Bengaluru but they aren’t all ours," Padma says.

Most 99 Varieties owners have a similar story to narrate. Most are Kannadigas from Hassan who moved to Mumbai, learnt the tricks of the dosa business, and then set up shop in Bengaluru (the business has now spread to Hyderabad and Chennai too) using the ‘99 Varieties’ tag along with the names of gods and goddesses as a prefix to distinguish them from the competition. They have nephews and sons helping out, and sell 200-500 dosas every day. They all speak fluent Hindi and some are even fluent in Marathi.

They churn out dosas as fast as customers can order. The dosa batter is spread out on a hot tava, on top of which a layer of spicy tomato chutney is spread. Then the toppings of your choice, say, corn and mushroom, are mixed with tomato, onion and capsicum and mashed on the dosa until the ingredients turn pasty like a thick gravy. A generous dollop of butter is added and the dosa folded deftly and cut into two halves. It is served with coconut and mint chutneys and prices start from 30 (for a plain dosa) to 120 (for a special that has all the ingredients). No sambar is served.

Padma says the 99 Variety owners across Bengaluru have grown up eating the traditional versions of the dosa, though they are now making the dosa in anything-goes-with-everything fashion typical of Mumbai street food.

Ashok Gowda, 45, has been parking his truck, Sri Sairam 99 Variety Dosa, at 9th Cross Malleswaram in Bengaluru for almost 10 years now and eats what he sells a couple of times a week. Dinesh of Sri Durga 99 Variety Dosa in Indiranagar eats at least onedosa every day, and for Padma, “eating one Paneer Dosa every day is compulsory".

“It’s a take on a familiar thing and yet it’s new, so it’s a big hit! It’s for people who generally don’t want to be challenged but still be reasonably excited about eating out. They like it because it isn’t completely out of their comfort zone. It ticks all the boxes," says food critic Priya Bala.

Padma’s establishment today does not even have a banner to indicate the name. She says people know where to find them—near the park behind the Ganesh temple in Koramangala. They moved here three years ago from Lakshmi Devi Park after residents complained about the crowd spilling on to the street. “When we first started selling in Bangalore, I was very worried about people’s response. It was a bit weird for me to be Kannadiga and selling a different version of the dosa, but people loved it!" Padma says.

“It’s a north Indian dosa in south Indian batter," says Vikas Mohapatra, a risk analyst with PayPal, who is originally from Odisha but lives in Bengaluru. His friend Ritika Talwar, a fashion designer, also from Odisha, has been eating at Dinesh’s truck for two years now. She likes her choice of filling to be served separately so that she can eat the whole thing like roti-sabzi, she says.

99 Varieties is not only popular among migrants to the city but among locals too. So, you will find these makeshift trucks not only in Indiranagar, Koramangala, and HSR Layout—areas that are dominated by migrants—but also in places dominated by Kannadigas, like Malleswaram and Jayanagar.

Two teenagers, Harshita B. and Jennifer S.J., come to Dinesh once a month after school hours. They say the dosa their mothers make at home is “boring". For Abhishek Prakash, a student at the University of Southern California, eating at Ashok Gowda’s truck is on his checklist every time he comes home. Ashwini A., a Tamilan from Bengaluru who is in her final year of engineering, eats at Gowda’s stall three-four times a week.

Even the older generation visit these food trucks. Jaishree Venkateshan, a retired bank officer, eats out at Dinesh’s truck every once in a while with her husband. “We really enjoy this dosa (Schezwan Paneer Dosa) but it’s difficult to make it at home because it involves so many ingredients," she says.

However, Bengaluru’s oldest dosa eateries still serve it in the traditional way. One of them, CTR, is only a 5-minute walk from Ganesh Gowda’s truck in Malleswaram. Their most popular benne (butter) masala dosa is completely different from what 99 Varieties sells.

“We have mostly Iyengars from in and around Malleswaram coming in on a daily basis. Senior citizens come right from Monday morning and several of our regular customers come from the opposite end of town on the weekends," says Ganesh Poojari, the 24-year-old who runs the family business. He doesn’t look at 99 Varieties as competition because both are entirely different experiences.

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